We Don’t Know You Like That: Welcoming First Generation College Students to Campus

The start of a new year in college brings with it a variety of orientation activities, like Convocation, Matriculation pledges, sing a longs and campus walks.  While most new students are uncertain what to expect once they arrive to campus, first-generation college students may be even more perplexed or uncertain of themselves.  Many welcome week or weekend activities presume that parents and their families are already familiar with university traditions and campus culture.  But what about first-gen students?

Based on my experience working with this population (and my own personal experience), here are some suggestions for making them feel equally welcome and engaged at the start of school.

Have a targeted first-gen welcome session.

The University of Southern California recently hosted a welcome session for first-generation college students and their families.

No matter how many students on campus identify as first-generation college, it is important to have targeted sessions for this population.  An hour long panel or lunch goes a long way and also provides a great opportunity for new students to meet other students from similar backgrounds.   First-gen faculty, staff and administrators should also be invited and encouraged to share their stories and a bit of their personal background.

Respect their space.

Yeah, never do this.

The Human Knot and Birdie on a Perch only make sense in two universes: summer camp and college orientation.  For the rest of the world, these getting to you know you activities are just downright weird. They require too much touching, personal confessions and sharing of personal space that the average first-gen student is just not willing to do, especially not five minutes after meeting  a group of strangers.  Keep the ice breakers brief, meaningful (e.g., How Did You Get Your Name?) and free of bodily contact.

If a student opts out or is visibly uncomfortable, don’t make him feel badly for not participating or showing school spirit.  Trust takes time.

Let parents and families know how long they are expected to stay . . . gently.

move in

It’s an unspoken rule that parents are expected to bring their student to campus, help them move in, stay long enough to meet the roommate, and then head out shortly there after.  But in a recent NY Times essay, author Jennine Capo Crucet describes how those expectations are not made clear. Whether due to excitement or fear, some families may plan to stay on campus all day and take some time and observe the new environment that their kid will be living in.

And when students are expected to be on their own, that message should be communicated clearly but gently.  The time for departure can be an especially emotional time for first-gens.

Develop family oriented programs.

Account for multiple generations and blended families when welcoming students.
Account for multiple generations and blended families when welcoming students.

Many activities for parents during welcome week involve meeting administrators, most of whom their own student may never see again.  Who knows what a provost does, for example?  Further, a language barrier may exist.  Move in weekend may find the families of first-generation college students feeling proud of their student but extremely nervous about what is expected of them because the terrain (including the terminology and physical landscape) may be unfamiliar to them.

When developing welcome programs, be culturally sensitive and aware that many families value interdependence and not rugged individualism. Develop activities that are inclusive of multiple generations, including grandparents and younger siblings.   For instance, group photos are a great way for the entire family to express their enthusiasm.

Some people get dropped off and not moved in.

Lucia
Be on the lookout for solo flyers. They need even more support and attention.

While some students may bring mom, dad, grandparents and siblings when they move into their residence halls, some students are dropped off rather than moved in.  Schools should be on the look out for students who are checking in alone or whose parents have to leave early.  In these instances, a friendly RA or peer mentor should be dispatched to assist such a student and to stay with her until other students arrive on the floor or until a campus-sponsored event or activity begins.

Have clear expectations and agendas.

Clearly written descriptions are very helpful.
Clearly written descriptions are very helpful.

Telling a student to go to an event just because it is “fun” or “cool” may not be the best approach.  Instead, give a brief overview of what the activity is, how many people might be there, how long it lasts and generally what a student can expect to find.  Transparent calendars or agendas are helpful, as well.  This would mean including brief descriptions of events and activities.

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When we take first-generation college students into account, it often forces university staff and administrators to address WHY we do what we do.  Take a step back and look at campus traditions. Are they as clearly articulated as they can be?  Are the goals and desired outcomes transparent and inclusive?

Ultimately, we want all students to feel welcome right from the start.  And with the right amount of resources, support, and acceptance, new first-generation college students can and will thrive in their first year.

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Brawler

EXT. BRENTWOOD SCIENCE MAGNET ELEMENTARY PLAYGROUND – DAY

A small group of 6 and 7 year old boys, mostly African American and Latino, are hanging out by a steel Space Dome Climber.  One of these boys is XAVIER, slightly bigger than the others, with an athletic build.  He’s bored.

XAVIER (to no one in particular)

                         Hey, guys.  Let’s fight!

 FADE OUT

The above scene is based on actual events with our son playing the part of “Xavier.”  No one was hurt and there was no blood shed.  No one started crying even.  For his participation in said event, J received an official citation from the school for “inciting a brawl.”


There is no formal explanation for citations in the LAUSD handbook; in fact, the most recent edition only mentions a citation once.  But I did find one definition on a California school’s website: “citations are a formal documentation of behaviors.  Teachers should use citations sparingly and strategically. Citations may ONLY be written by teachers or the principal, not classified staff or substitutes.”   In some schools, particularly in higher grades, police officers administer citations.  Essentially, they are part of a school’s discipline plan.

And what about a “brawl”?  Let’s refer to an official source, Black’s Law Dictionary:

A clamorous or tumultuous quarrel in a public place, to the disturbance of the public peace. In English law, specifically, a noisy quarrel or other uproarious conduct creating a disturbance in a church or churchyard. 4 Bl. Comm. 140; 4 Steph. Comm. 253. The popular meanings of the words “brawls” and “tumults” are substantially the same and identical.

This is a brawl;  this is a brawl; and this most definitely is a brawl.   A group of seven year olds going at it on the playground?  At the most, that’s a kerfuffle, but for the average person, that’s just called recess.

Unfortunately, as many studies and reports have shown, black and Latino youths don’t often have the luxury of exhibiting “average” or ordinary behavior in school.  Rather, they tend to be over-policed by teachers and administrators and often treated like violent offenders for routine situations.

Rather than sign the citation, as we were directed, my husband and I went to the school the next day and confronted the vice principal, a very nice, mild mannered African American man.  He was stunned by our outrage, admitted that his word choice was poor, but assured us that he was just trying to scare our son.


In February 1993, when he was 17 years old, Virginia native Allen Iverson went bowling with a group of (black) friends at a bowling alley.  Allegedly, someone called Iverson a “nigger” and “little boy,” and a fight broke out between two distinct groups, one all black and the other all white.  According to one source, “Police concluded that the white combatants had acted in self-defense, and none was charged. But Iverson and three other black teens were charged as adults with ‘maiming by mob‘—a felony under a rarely used statute written to prosecute Klan lynchings.”  Ultimately, Iverson was sentenced to 15 years in prison for participating in what is commonly referred to as a brawl.  The prosecuting attorney argued: “This was a violent mob. We tried them as a mob because, while we couldn’t link specific people to specific acts, each defendant was responsible for what occurred.” Iverson served four months in a Virginia correctional facility before being granted clemency by Governor Douglas Wilder.

Harsh punishments for black youth often are regarded as necessary tactics to scare them straight or to prevent them from going down a criminal path.   As journalist Stacey Patton argues, such notions are based on the belief that these young people are inherently offenders.

Seen as criminals from childhood, little boys and girls with black skin have the unfortunate damnation of existing in a society that sees no purpose in them. Black people and blackness are regularly associated with unruliness, violence and trouble. A rowdy black kid can’t just be doing something silly. It’s often seen as displaying a blatant disregard for authority and social order — pretty much asking to be kept in check by any means necessary.

The important work of UCLA professor and student advocate Tyrone Howard reminds us how schools contribute to building this narrative of criminalization.  Black male students are disproportionally the victims of school zero-tolerance policies and other forms of punishment where they are made an example.  Howard maintains: “minor infractions, which could and should be handled by school officials, began to result in the involvement of local police, the arrest of minors, and the filing of criminal charges.”  For many of these youths, the lines between school and the law are blurred.  A 2014 report from the Department of Education describes school citations (as well as student arrests and ticketing) as “law enforcement techniques,” and argues that they should be used only as a last resort.


“Iverson and his buddies went to the alley to bowl, not to brawl.  Somebody hit somebody and then it turned into a fight.  There is no common purpose when people come running from everywhere because of the words, fight, fight, fight.”

~Herbert V. Kelly, Sr., defense attorney for Allen Iverson

My husband and I recognized the slippery slope that we were on.  We understood that labeling a first grader as a “brawler” is the first step down a long road of further unwarranted charges, mis-applied legal terms and undue punishments.  While we had some control, we wanted to reject this narrative for our son.  We repudiated the citation and told the vice principal that he better not put it in the boy’s school file.  Case closed . . . for that day.

Sadly, this story is not a unique one.  Tunette Powell recently wrote a piece in The Washington Post about the number of times her four year old son has been suspended from pre-school.  Indeed, the “preschool to prison pipeline” is real and is not limited to poor, inner city youth.  Any black student may be subjected to the biases of a teacher, including one who may think he is doing the right thing.  [Note: that administrator who wrote J’s citation? Now Executive Director of LAUSD Student Integration Services.]

If other parents have gone through something similar with their children, I encourage you to post in the comments section below!

Speaker Of The House

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I’m just saying how I feel, man.
I ain’t one of the Cosbys; I ain’t go to Hillman.

~Kanye West, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”

Lately I have been become interested in a phenomenon that I refer to as first-generation awareness, that is, the realization and subsequent acceptance that one is a first-generation college student.  The concept may seem obvious, but after reflecting upon my own school experiences and in speaking with other first-gens, I stand firm that this identity needs to be explored more carefully. Specifically, I argue that one must learn that she is a first-generation college student and then with that knowledge in hand, begin to seek resources and support.

For as long as I can remember, I knew that I was going to be the first person in my family to go to college.  Why?  Because my aunts and uncles told me so at every opportunity.  I was known as the “smart one” and all questions regarding school and the government were first brought to me.

“Tee, you’re smart.  What does this word mean?”

“The school called today.  What that teacher want?”

“Something came in the mail from the city.  Can you open it up, baby?”

I knew that I was the first to go to college in my family, but I didn’t realize that being first-generation was a thing.  I just knew that I was different somehow, but more importantly, I had a responsibility to do well in school not just for myself but for the whole family, my block and even the race.  As the designated family representative, I was aware that I had opportunities that my mother, grandmother and cousins did not.  My success (or failure) was everyone’s success and cause for widespread celebration.


My grandmother and youngest uncle–still in high school at the time–were excited when they found out that my second grade class was taking a field trip to City Hall and that we would have an opportunity to meet with the mayor.  Our homework was to come up with a question that we would ask him.

“Nah, Tee.  All of those other kids are going to ask stupid questions,” Unc rubbed his hands together after I explained the assignment.  “You gotta come up with something good.”

I was puzzled.  “Like what?”

He and my grandma looked at each other knowingly.  “We’ll help you.”

The big day came.  We toured the grounds, fidgeted while the teachers attempted to explain the wonders of a democracy, and finally were shuffled into a small room that reminded me of a library.  The mayor was patient and gracious, but I suspected he wasn’t used to being around a bunch of seven year olds.  Sure enough, Unc was right: the questions were fairly lightweight.

“How many pets do you have?”

“What’s your favorite color?”

“Do you like cake or pie?”

And then it was my turn.  I stood up and held my wide-ruled notebook paper steady as I cleared my voice and read.

“When are you going to pass a law in favor of rent control so that poor people can pay their rent?”

The room fell completely silent at first.  Within seconds, one teacher rushed toward me and another headed toward Mayor Mann, shielding him from my audacity.

A classmate whispered to another. “What did she say?”

“I don’t know.”

It didn’t matter that I had no idea what rent control was either, but I stood there politely while the mayor (now sweaty and turning pinker by the minute) stammered his way through a response.  And it didn’t make any difference that since 1950, the Code of Virginia has prohibited rent control and no mayor has the authority to overturn the law.  What mattered most was that I asked the question.  Unc and Grandma recognized that the average poor person would never get an opportunity to meet with a government official, so it was my responsibility to speak on behalf of others who could not be there.

oldrentcontrol


 

I recently called my grandmother and asked her about this incident.  I wanted to know what she remembered, and why did she come up with a wringer about rent control of all things?  Her response was something like this:

“You know, you was always asking questions.  [Your grandfather] always said, ‘She’s the Smart One in the family.’  You always had your nose stuck in a book.  And [your father’s family] also encouraged you.  All of those questions.  You kept asking us why people lived where they lived.  So I figured, you could just ask the man himself.”

Now, Grandma is getting up there in age and her memory is not what it used to be, so I am not certain how much of this recollection is true.  But clearly she was on to a powerful pedagogical strategy, that is, when possible, students should take charge of their own education.  Rather than having me follow the crowd (“What’s your favorite ice cream?”), she pushed me to speak directly to an authority figure about something that was critically relevant.

This is an important lesson that I aim to instill within my own children, as well as my students.  For instance, when my son was frustrated with a school project that required him to interview a family member about her “immigration story” and also to provide photos and documentation of said immigration experience (Remember: we are not immigrants), my husband and I suggested that he write a letter to his social studies teacher explaining why the assignment was not appropriate.  We wanted him to know that he could speak up and talk back and that there are times when you must speak on behalf of your family and community.

This message is especially meaningful for first-generation college students who often come to the university with questions.   These queries should be welcomed, nurtured, and perhaps pruned, when necessary.  Sometimes they are audacious.  Sometimes the question may be as simple as, “What difference does it make that I am the first person in my family to go to college?”

And the answers are seldom simple.

 

Native Son

with Aunt Julie and Uncle Jim
with Aunt Julie and Uncle Jim

If you are attempting to raise progressive, socially conscious children, it’s no secret that school will mess your kids up.

Having left the East Coast and our entire families behind for professional opportunities, my husband and I established a network of extended “relatives,” consisting of very good friends and neighbors. These friends became de facto Aunties and Uncles to our two children. Didn’t matter that folks came from different backgrounds, races and ethnicities.   Uncle Mike (Japanese American) and Uncle Jim (Korean American) were simply family.

Then one day our son came home with a special assignment. To celebrate the rich diversity of the school (a public school, grades 1-5) in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, the pupils in this particular first (or was it second?) grade class were encouraged to bring a dish from her or his “home country.” Huh.

I think it’s fair to say that most parents of African American children dread the day when they have to discuss the history of U.S. slavery with their kids. This has nothing to do with shame or political correctness. It’s just that a) schools usually bring up the topic in a horrible and offensive manner and b) the conversation often happens much earlier in a child’s life than one might expect.

As cheerfully as we could, my husband and I pitched what we thought would be a sure winner: Why don’t you bring mac and cheese, son? Everybody loves mac and cheese! The kid wasn’t having it though. Anybody can bring that. You can even get it out of a box. What’s so international about that??? We explained that the U.S. is our home country, so let’s call up Nanny in Virginia and get her super secret recipe! But the disappointment was too great. Why can’t we just call Uncle Jim and ask for a recipe from Korea?

Damn.

Innocence over.

Dutifully, we went to the world map on our son’s wall and put one finger on our current “home” (Los Angeles) and moved it all the way over to the great land of North Carolina, which is as far back as we could go without making up stories.  This lesson was followed by a more official visit to the California African American Museum where our son and his three year old sister were bored by my lectures about slavery and U.S. history.  The mac and cheese ended up being a big hit at the school potluck, since most of the other kids either brought tacos or enchiladas, if they contributed anything at all.

I get it: the school was working hard to celebrate “diversity.” But too often “diversity” assignments in schools results in lazy thinking, at best, but usually cultural insensitivity, as we were to experience many, many times with both of our children.

In retrospect, I wish we hadn’t caved to the authenticity game that the school was playing.  The rules were simple: pick a box and jump in it.  There’s no reason why we couldn’t have offered up some kimchi or at least some spareribs. But we opted for “truth,” which meant that a 7 year old learned about the Middle Passage. Why couldn’t the teacher just ask every student to bring their family’s favorite recipe? Or why couldn’t each person learn about a new country and bring a popular dish from it?  There are a multitude of ways that schools can be inclusive and respectful without being marginalizing.  (Please include your suggestions in the comments below!)

Years later, while she was attending summer camp, we found ourselves in a similar situation with our daughter. This time: “wear an outfit from your home country.” She wore a cotton dress from Target. What could be more American than that?

The Ultimate Dinner Party

. . . oh, and lists.  I love making lists, so this blog will contain a few of those, as well.

First up: a list of artists and thinkers who inspire me.

  • Michael Corleone
  • East Compton Clovers
  • Cynthia Fuchs
  • Sharon Harley
  • Jay-Z
  • Led Zeppelin
  • George Lipsitz
  • Nancy Lyall
  • Cheryl Miller
  • Toni Morrison
  • Prince
  • Nina Revoyr
  • Daniel Solorzano
  • Helena Maria Viramontes
  • Mary Helen Washington
  • Pharrell Williams
  • Serena and Venus Williams
  • Malcolm X

“Already Home”

When my two kids started formal schooling, I was foolish enough to think that somehow they would skirt past racial micro-aggressions, racism and sexism.  That’s what higher education does to you: trick you into believing that you can succeed (or fail) based on your individual merits.

Up until now, I have complained at dinner parties and ranted on Facebook.  (I am horrible at tweeting.)  It has been suggested a few times that I create my own blog, so here it is.  In this space, I intend to capture my experience as a parent trying to navigate two socially conscious, mentally healthy and confident African American children through an educational experience that, quite frankly, is stacked against them.  This fight is quite ironic given my own professional work as an academic administrator who advocates for underrepresented students.  I’ll document those experiences, as well.  In addition to venting about racial micro-aggressions in educational settings, I will occasionally throw in a few book reviews here and there, because books rule.

This blog’s title is courtesy of Allen Iverson who, after single-handedly destroying the Lakers in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA finals, was asked if he worried about “fatigue.”  His response was, “Fatigues is army clothes.”   Just like AI, I feel like we have a long way to go in this battle, and ain’t nobody got time to get tired.